3-7 “Hello there, Miss.”
Ren Chodai glanced over his shoulder at Shushou. He and several of his party were sitting in a circle beneath a tree. They were clearly in a churlish mood.
“Was there something you wished to discuss?”
Shushou said, “I came to ask you for a favor.”
“I’ve had enough of shushi. I was wondering if you could hire me, doing chores and whatever.”
Chodai blinked several times. “Hire you?”
“Yes. You’ve seen enough of me to know that I’m in good physical condition. There’s nothing wrong with my legs. I can put in a full day’s work. What do you say? I don’t care how menial the tasks are.”
Chodai exchanged looks with the men gathered there then gestured to her. “Nothing personal, see, but I think it best you go back to the shushi.”
“I think not. I can’t abide the way shushi and goushi do things.”
“The way they do things?”
“That’s right. I’m not going into specifics. Frankly, I don’t even want to think about it.”
Chodai thin face clouded over. “Miss—Shushou, was it?—if you insisted, I would have no problem treating you as a guest. Unfortunately, as you have pointed out yourself, I am a novice when it comes to the Yellow Sea.”
“No matter how much a person knows about the Yellow Sea, if that knowledge is in the service of a twisted heart, then it doesn’t mean a thing.”
“A twisted heart.”
Shushou stared at the ground, her hands still clenched in anger. “Koushu are itinerants. It’s a tough life, I know, without a family or emperor to protect them.” She raised her gaze. “But it’s not like I don’t have any idea how tough life can be. It’s tough living without an emperor. It’s tough having youma coming out of the woodwork. Why else would all these people put their lives on the line to travel to Mt. Hou?”
Chodai quietly looked back at her.
“Yes, itinerants and refugees have a hard life. Supposedly it’s not possible for people like you and me to understand what that’s like. If that was true, nobody would ever venture into the Yellow Sea. It’s the koushu who don’t get it. It’s obvious to anybody who gives it a few minutes of thought that the koushu got dealt a bad hand in life. But that’s no excuse to beweep their outcast state, curse their fate, and envy those better off than them. And then when they’re in a place they know like the backs of their hands, lord it over everybody else.”
“No matter how familiar they may be with the Yellow Sea, if they’re going to use that knowledge as some sort of retribution, they’d be better off as ignorant as the rest of us. That’s all I’m going to say. I am indebted to them for bringing me this far.”
“I see,” Chodai said with a thoughtful nod.
“I just don’t want to be around them right now. At any rate, Ren-san, you’re going to keep following the road, aren’t you?”
Chodai shook his head. “No. This once we will probably heed the advice of the goushi and follow them.”
“Why? Up to now—”
“Because this turned out to be the kind of thing the goushi said they wanted us to know.”
“The goushi sent you a message?”
Meaning that, amazingly enough, Chodai had spoken with the goushi of his own volition.
“The goushi went out of their way to inform us. That means something really dangerous must lie ahead. I am not so reckless as to want to see for myself. I wasn’t ever interested in seeking out alternate routes simply in order to defy the goushi.”
“I detoured around the marsh because I knew there was something in it worth avoiding. The goushi obviously knew about it and took measures not available to us. If the goushi would go to such lengths, we reasoned that it shouldn’t be crossed at all. Don’t you think?”
“That does make sense.”
“We looked for a way around, again, not because we wished to defy the goushi. So if the goushi say the way ahead is impassable, we’ll listen to what they have to say. Seeing as they’re going to the trouble of carving out a new route, we might as well follow them.”
“Though Kiwa and his group seemed to have pushed the trees aside and proceeded along the road.”
Shushou started, her eyes wide. “Shitsu-san did what? Really?”
“You okay with this?” Rikou asked Gankyuu.
Gankyuu rose to his feet to run after Shushou then stopped in his tracks, searching out the place he’d last seen her with his eyes only.
“Let her do what she wants. She paid me up front anyway.” But there was little sense of triumph in his words.
“For the life of me, I can’t understand how that girl thinks.”
“Really?” said Rikou.
Gankyuu glanced back at him. “So you say. Aren’t you the one who came all this way in order to escort that handful of trouble to her destination?”
“That I did.”
“In which case, you go,” Gankyuu said, and sat down on the spot.
Rikou grinned. “Don’t be mean. Putting distance between yourself and a koushu in the Yellow Sea is dangerous to your health.”
An unfathomable smile rose to Rikou’s face. “Even I hold my own life dear. It’s not something, alas, I wish to cast aside on behalf of somebody else.”
“Then why did you come all the way to the Yellow Sea?”
“I believed my presence might prove necessary. Though I suspect it no longer is.”
Gankyuu cocked his head to the side. “I don’t get that at all.”
“Chasing after Shushou would be easy enough. But without you there, it’d be an empty gesture.”
Gankyuu raised his head. Meaning what? the expression on his face said.
“Shushou probably ended up with Chodai or Kiwa. She’s not so foolish to believe she could navigate the Yellow Sea by herself. I don’t think she will reach Mt. Hou without a koushu by her side.”
“I see,” said Gankyuu, his mouth twisting into a frown. “There’s no need to guard Shushou if she’s not going to become empress.”
“If Shushou doesn’t become empress, I’ve got no reason to be here.”
When Shushou told Rikou she was going to Mt. Hou, the feeling she was destined to become empress took root inside him. He hadn’t ended up in that town with any thought of meeting her or anybody like her. For whatever reason, that was where he’d decided to stop for the night. For whatever reason, he’d circled around the town to check out the cemetery. And then for whatever reason, he’d left Seisai alone for a few minutes.
Gankyuu said, as if privy to these thoughts, “I think, in general, that’s what one person chancing across another is all about.”
“Though I don’t think it was so important who Shushou met. Had it been somebody other than me, that connection would have become equally important.”
“I suppose there must be others around as whimsical as you.”
“But if you weren’t there, Gankyuu, it’s hard to imagine how things would have turned out.” Gankyuu stared back at him. Rikou smiled. “You’re a koushu, quite out of my class. I expect you’re going to have a hard time grasping where guys like me are coming from too.”
Gankyuu chuckled. “Huh. You really think so?”
Rikou smiled again. “That is the response of a person refusing the possibility of comprehension. Sans explanations, there’s no way to say whether you understand or not.”
“You’re saying I’m narrow-minded.”
“I wouldn’t go that far. Koushu empathize with the feelings of other koushu. That’s no less true for everybody else. As a general rule, if it didn’t happen to you, you’re not going to get it. At the same time, though, there are also those words that reject comprehension while casting aspersions on those who don’t understand.”
Gankyuu sank into silence.
“Shushou wants to understand you.”
“I don’t think she ever will.”
“And you couldn’t be bothered to offer an explanation?”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“Or perhaps you didn’t want her to get you from the start. Or feared her not getting you even after the explanation.”
Gankyuu sighed. “That’s not it.”
“What I don’t get is all these people who think a king is important to a kingdom and want one so bad they’re willing to go on the Shouzan.”
Rikou nodded and said with a wry smile. “That could indeed stand in the way of a mutual understanding.”
Gankyuu had no more to add. Rikou kept any further thoughts to himself. No fires burned in the scattered campsites. The people scattered here and there wrapped the dark and quiet around them like a heavy quilt and stayed up through the night.
At the break of dawn, after the skies had brightened sufficiently, the koushu came to their feet and made ready to travel. Sullenly and silently, Gankyuu did the same, strapping the packs to the back of his haku. That was when Kinhaku approached him.
Gankyuu looked up to see Chodai at Kinhaku’s shoulder.
“The little brat’s not here. She dismissed me, don’t you know.”
“I know,” Chodai interrupted. “She left with Kiwa.”
“Last night, Kiwa cleared the trees out of the way and continued along the road.”
Gankyuu shot Chodai a startled look. Chodai nodded. Kinhaku frowned.
“It seems that old rich man couldn’t bear to part with his wagon. He set out at daybreak. He can go wherever he feels like, except the girl went with him. You okay with that?
“She could say she was throwing her life away and I’d tell her to get on with it. I’m no longer in her employ. She’s got nothing to do with me.”